U.S. Virgin Islands government ‘wins’ 2015 SPJ Black Hole Award
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Jonathan Anderson, Freedom of Information Committee Chair, 920-676-5399, firstname.lastname@example.org
Maggie LaMar, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS—The Society of Professional Journalists is awarding its fifth annual Black Hole Award to the Government of the United States Virgin Islands for its bald and breathtaking contempt of the public’s right to know.
The Virgin Islands Daily News nominated the government, including Gov. Kenneth Mapp and Senate, citing an array of access problems.
“The government’s lack of transparency has caused an uproar in the territory,” Jonathan Austin of the Virgin Islands Daily News wrote in his nomination letter.
Mapp has refused to comply with the territory’s open-records law and claimed he has a right to alter records before they can be released, according to the newspaper.
Mapp also retaliated against a subordinate after that person released documents showing Mapp spent excessively on travel, groceries and alcohol using a government-issued credit card. The subordinate, whom Mapp fired, subsequently filed a lawsuit and claimed Mapp wanted her to remove embarrassing information in the credit card statements, the newspaper’s nomination said.
When the Daily News exposed that spending, many people found it inconsistent with statements Mapp made. In his inaugural State of the Territory address in January 2015, Mapp had told residents that, “Our government is teetering on the brink of financial collapse. Our ability to deliver basic essential services to our communities is diminishing more and more each day.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands Senate also is refusing to disclose how much money some legislators have spent at a legislative conference in Seattle, the newspaper said.
“What’s happening in the U.S. Virgin Islands is unacceptable,” said Jonathan Anderson, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. “Citizens deserve a government that is more open and responsive, and they should remember that in the next election.”
Runners-up for the 2015 Black Hole Award are:
1. The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
A recipient of the 2012 Black Hole Award, the Wisconsin State Legislature is once again on the list. On the eve of the July 4 holiday last year, Wisconsin’s Republican-led Joint Finance Committee voted along party lines to effectively gut the state’s open-records law. The action, which was part of the legislature’s budget process, would have blocked release of virtually all state and local legislative records and sought to create a so-called “legislator disclosure privilege.” Legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker were involved in drafting the proposal.
Pressure from the media and public prompted officials to drop the measure, according to Mark Pitsch, president of SPJ’s Madison pro chapter, who submitted the nomination.
“Perhaps most importantly,” Pitsch wrote, “residents from across Wisconsin rose up against the changes in an almost unprecedented outpouring of opposition.”
2. Marshall County (Tenn.) Sheriff’s Office.
Prison Legal News nominated the Marshall County (Tenn.) Sheriff’s Office after the paper had trouble obtaining records about the county jail's contract for phone service.
The county's former sheriff, Norman Dalton, demanded that Prison Legal News Managing Editor Alex Friedman appear in person to file a request for the records. The problem: Tennessee law doesn't require that requests be made in person.
Friedman and a state access counselor advised the sheriff's office of that fact, and Dalton ultimately stopped responding to the newspaper's inquiries, according to Friedman.
Prison Legal News sued and prevailed in court, prompting the sheriff's office to release the records. An appeals court later held that Dalton had willfully withheld the records and awarded the newspaper reimbursement of its attorney's fees.
Other finalists for a 2015 Black Hole Award are:
- Community Services District of Cambria, Calif.
- Colorado Judicial Branch
- Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback
- Los Angeles City Hall
- New York State Police
- Trans Pacific Partnership
- Wyoming Legislature
- New York State Thruway Authority
Nominations for the Black Hole Award come from journalists, open-government advocates and the general public.
Previous recipients of the Black Hole Award include the U.S. Forest Service, Oklahoma State University, the Georgia, Utah and Wisconsin legislatures and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know. By exposing such abuses, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee seeks to educate members of the public about their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with openness and transparency.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.